The Division Between NeuroDiversity Advocates and The Rest of The World

The Neurodiversity Movement is polarizing in the way any real civil rights movement is. It’s not inherently so. But when someone shines a bright light on dark truths, people are often surprised to find themselves in its sweeping beam.

And, when people are confronted, directly or indirectly, and asked to make a change on an intangible thing, like an attitude or a thought pattern, they have to make a choice.  Most good people have no idea about the biases and prejudices they hold and how those biases affect others.

There are not many people out there who say, “I hate autistic people;” however, it would be safe to assert that most people have internalized biases which manifest in ways that make life more difficult for autistic people.

Empathy is a double-edged sword and is something that is based on commonalities, and so the more degrees removed person A is from person B, the harder it is for A to empathize with B.

For example, a news report was featured this week on many local stations about recent research which indicated a high number of employees would prefer not to touch in office spaces, which could lead to policies banning hugs, pats on the back, and even handshakes from workplaces.

Commenters raged, reading this report as political correctness gone wild and equating handshakes with non-consensual sexual contact.  Many people said, “We teach our sons to look people in the eyes and give them a good, firm handshake like a man should!”

No one, and I mean not one single person, said anything about how this policy would make workspaces more accommodating for the autistic people who have difficulties with physical touch due to sensory issues.

But, the point made– no matter what the political affiliation– was that it’s a time-honored tradition and a gesture of respect to shake hands over business.  Those who won’t shake hands are weak, “special snowflakes,” and “too fragile for work.”  And handshakes are only a single accommodation…

It’s unlikely that any of those people had any intentional malice towards autistic people; however, those internalized attitudes about the “normal” and “right” way to do things still harm autistic people.  These attitudes are largely responsible for why more than 85% of autistic adults with at least a 4 year university degree are unemployed as compared to less than five percent of the general population.

But, the general population feels no conscious malice towards autistic people.  They are doing what everyone else is doing and aren’t even thinking about autism.  They don’t have to think about it until it hits close to home, usually when a child is suspected to be autistic or is diagnosed with autism.  Then, families are going to be presented with two very different paradigms:

The medical/behavioral community v/s the autistic community

The medical community will tell people that there is an urgency for intense and immediate interventions to get ahead of the autism before it’s too late.  Enter ABA therapy, Autism Speaks, and puzzle iconography.  Parents usually start the therapy and eventually find themselves in social media groups for parents of autistic kids.

When a group has a large population of autistic people, inevitable clashes arise as non-autistic parents and autistic parents have conflicting perspectives about many issues.  The loving, non-autistic parents are just doing what experts told them to do, and so they see the autistic people as hostile and creating division where there is none.

The division wasn’t intentional.  But for parents to trust autistic people, that would mean that autism isn’t what they thought it was. They’d have to make a gear shift that autistic people can be wise, free-thinking, insightful people who can offer help instead of just accepting it.

They’d have to stop trusting the mainstream advice. But, autistic people seem radical when they tell the world to not try and change autistic children.  It seems radical the first time you hear someone say, “We don’t want a cure for autism.”

Most autistic people felt that was radical the first time they heard it, too.

To change one’s perception about autism when an autistic person is a fundamental part of someone’s life is to force them to engage in a cognitive chain reaction and rearrange their whole perceptive framework for how they’ve thought about their loved ones and broader autistic society.

Sometimes, it means admitting to painful truths about how misinformation has potentially caused harm to a loved one.

It requires a lot of humility to break away from previously-held beliefs, especially when one belongs to social groups which share those beliefs.

Community and Division

Often, communities form out of necessity.  There is safety in numbers. This happens because in the social landscape, accountability is everything.  For majorities, communities are afforded the luxury of being able to achieve social consensus: if enough people agree, then it must be true.  As long as everyone agrees, they live in harmony. If someone disagrees, it threatens the safety of the group.

In the autistic community, the stakes are high.  It’s nearly impossible to find an autistic person who isn’t suffering from the impact of trauma and abuse.  In our community, it’s not uncommon to lose our members or have them disappear without notice.  We all know we may have lost another one of our fold when this happens.

We hear about the horrors of what has happened to people who have had the police called on them for seeming “weird,” of the children who are relentlessly bullied in schools, of the adults who are fired from jobs for asking sincere questions, and of the thousands of nuanced oppressions– largely unintentional– from the polite masses.

To anyone oppressed, “polite” is a silent killer.  To talk about oppression, in any way, is going to be considered “political” and “rude.”

But, when an autistic person reads about something upsetting that has happened to autistic people, it’s impossible to not read it from the perspective of an oppressed person.

If you know a lot of other autistic people and participate in the community, it’s impossible to not see the impacts of this oppression every day. An autistic person has no choice but to see things from the bottom looking up. The angle is not flattering.

So autistic people and their embattled allies come to these discussions with a lifetime and community’s worth of baggage and trauma, and separating their passion from their tone is not exactly a simple task.

How Do We Move Forward? How is the gap bridged?

Moving forward twill require that we all dig deep and pull from the reserves of our humility, forgiveness, and patience. All of us.

Non-autistic people need to forgive autistic people for their strong reactions and blunt language. They also need to give autistic people space and room to speak.

Autistic people need to forgive non-autistic people for not knowing what the mainstream has hidden from them.

Common Ground

I propose we all unite on the front of despising Autism Speaks. If we could render that oppressive dinosaur impotent, at least half the source of our conflict disappears.

This article was originally an introduction to Eileen Lamb’s anti-neurodiversity article, which can be viewed here.

Related Articles

10 Responses

  1. “Moving forward twill require that we all dig deep and pull from the reserves of our humility, forgiveness, and patience. All of us.
    Non-autistic people need to forgive autistic people for their strong reactions and blunt language. They also need to give autistic people space and room to speak.
    Autistic people need to forgive non-autistic people for not knowing what the mainstream has hidden from them.”

    My sense, stemming as it does from my biography and development, is that the ground of progress (individual and collective), requires us to access the meta-strata to being human out of which both the autistic and the social/societal emerge and across which the tension between the two plays out. Nether autistic-being nor social/societal-being is that ground or has that ground in its grasp.
    Empirical data about that deeper ground and ‘theorising’ about that ground is had in the experience of each and every individual who has had encounter with the autistic, from inside as it were or from outside as it were. As we currently stand most of our theorising on this matter is being had from two somewhat polarised viewpoints; namely the autistic and the social/societal; the autistic theorising about the social/societal; the social/societal theorising about the autistic. All that being had in myriad circumstantially shaped forms.
    Interaction between human beings allows for a transcendent frame of reference to be had; and how our humanity evolves tends to partake of that transcending.
    The dynamics of these two outcome-forms of being human have to each be non-reductively understood and respected. Its the tension between the two that has to be most grasped and prized. Each offering a dividend from out of the vortex from which all human forms emerge. Together offering a richer grasp of that vortex, deeper management of what emerges from that vortex; really offering a new horizon of possibilities in being human.

    1. Colin Bowman, while I agree with most of your points, it’s disturbing that you would use a term such as “social/societal” to describe non-autistic people. It implies that autistic people can’t be social, and don’t care about society, which simply isn’t true. What’s wrong with just saying “non-autistic”?

      1. I think he means “mainstream” or the common (mis)understanding instead of social individuals. He is saying (I think) that there is a gap between what we know of ourselves and how we are characterized socially— by society at large.

    2. I somehow missed replying this comment when you left it. I would love to talk more about this.

  2. In the UK (and perhaps in Europe and elsewhere) we don’t have the Autism Speaks factor in the manner of the USA.
    We then see great continental differences, regards: culture, and politics, and social/societal system and process, and academic/disciplinary thinking.
    Those factors will introduce complexity into what basis we have for progressing.

    1. I live in the UK myself and I would argue that while it’s not quite so bad, it would be foolish to say it doesn’t exist at all. Bias and misinformation exists everywhere, sadly…

  3. Complete crap. Not once did this tedious, entitled rant mention non neurodiverse autistics. Yet again, trying to coercively assimilate everyone with autism into the autistic agenda. We aren’t interested in joining the ND Kool Aid cult.

  4. Why can’t we just accept each other for who and what we are? Then we wouldn’t need to have advocacy groups for all the various types of marginalized people.

    Given that we do not live in such a utopia, autistic people need to band together and advocate for ourselves and for those of us who don’t have a voice.

    I think the point of the autism advocacy/neurodiversity movement should be more to allow autistic people to decide for themselves than to profess to speak for or represent the viewpoints of all when not everyone being represented holds those viewpoints.

    For example, person first idenitifcation – that’s fine, autistic identity first – that’s ok too. However the individual person wants to self-identify must be accepted. I think that too much is made of this, and that too many people on both “sides” seem to think they speak for everyone when they make pronouncements about how autistic people should be identified. Personally, I think too much is made of the words people use, when it is the attitude behind the words that is far more important.

    Another thing is the concept of a “cure”. I am an autistic person who would not dream of getting rid of my autism, given the choice, because it is what I am. At the same time, I can understand the point of view of autistic people who want to get rid of the problems associated with autism, and especially that of parents who desperately want to stop their children from suffering. I see myself as an advocate of the neurodiverse movement, but I think they should try to better sympathize with people who would like to lessen the negative aspects of autism, without accusing them of being advocates for eugenics or for refusing to vaccinate one’s children, or of condoning weird crackpot “cures”.

    That’s where my first sentence comes into play. Of course, we can’t expect the entire human race, with all of its neurotypical-related weaknesses, will ever be able to accept people they have labelled, in their minds, as “different”. The way neurotypical people are wired gives them a “survival instinct” to reject people they perceive as different from themselves. It is something inside them that they cannot change. However, many neurodivergent people do not have that same compulsion, and therefore there is hope for us. We have the ability to accept others, even if their basic point of view differs from our own. Therefore, we should exercise that ability, especially with each other. As there is a spectrum of autism, there is a spectrum of points of view regarding autism, as well as a spectrum of experiences of autism, and any group professing to represent or advocate for autistic people should respect those spectra as well.

    I do not think autistic people need to be “tolerated” or “forgiven”. Those words imply that we have done something wrong (or even that our very existence is wrong). The only reason NT people get upset about not being offered a handshake or being looked at in the eye is because those NT “survival instincts” that they have wired into them tell them that people who do not behave and speak in a way that they consider “normal” pose a threat. They have no logical reason for feeling threatened, and they cannot explain it, and perhaps that is why some of them have such a strong negative reaction to autistic people. Their bodies are telling them that they are being threatened, and some of them simply don’t have the mental capacity to analyse the situation logically and realize there is no actual threat. This is how bullying starts, and why NT people end up ganging up on autistic individuals to make sure they are rejected from social groups, from employment situations, and from life in general.

    If only there were a “cure” for neurotypicalness…

  5. @Jonathan Ferguson:

    “Not once did this tedious, entitled rant mention non-neurodiverse autistics.”

    First, every living creature is part of neurodiversity by definition. Second, if you meant ‘neurodivergent’, then you’re definitely talking out of your arse. Autism is a neurodivergence that results in disability. Therefore, there are no non-neurodivergent autistic people. Hot tip: troll harder.

Talk to us... what are you thinking?

Skip to content